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[ RESEARCH COMMUNITY ] November 6, 2020

"Impactful Meetings in Times of Crisis": Berlin Science Week Panel Discussion

What can scholarly communication learn from a more digital-forward approach? Read a recap of holding scientific meetings during a time of crisis.

On Monday, November 2nd, a group of researchers, entrepreneurs, and association leaders gathered virtually in order to discuss and trade their perspectives regarding the future of conferences. Moderated by Morressier’s Managing Director, Sami Benchekroun, the panel discussion centered on how to best hold impactful scientific meetings during times of crisis, reflecting on how the nature of scholarly discourse has evolved during the past eventful year, and sharing advice on how to innovate on existing formats to accommodate possible challenges.

Conferences are stuck in the dark ages

The discussion opened to panelist Dr. Esther Ngumbi, Assistant Professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and thought leader in scholarly communications, discussing an article in which she claimed that conferences were stuck in the dark ages. Dr. Ngumbi noted that predictability and “one-sided” communication were holding traditional conferences back. Reflecting on over a decade of attending conferences, Dr. Ngumbi said she often only had 10 minutes to speak and no opportunity to actively engage with questions. She also argued that travel expenses and securing VISAs can exclude many potential attendees, in particular early-career researchers. 

Lorena Villanueva-Almanza, AAAS Mass Media Fellow at the Indianapolis Star and biology researcher, agreed with this sentiment, adding that increased accessibility is the number one advantage of virtual conferences. “Many don’t realize how important this has been for accessing scientific knowledge from across the globe,” Villaneuva-Almanza said. 

Is this the Age of Acceleration? Have things improved? 

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, Dr. Annette Thomas, CEO of the Guardian and neuroscientist, said our current situation has resulted in some dramatic, positive changes in the dissemination and consumption of knowledge. She noted a significant increase in interest in the news, not only at the Guardian, but worldwide. Readers are also more attune to the quality of information and better equipped at filtering content and applying the information that is relevant to them.

This new digital age also opens up additional possibilities for associations to support scholarly dissemination, panelist Ben Hainsworth, the Managing Director of the European Association for the Study of the Liver and expert in academic conference management, noted. "There is a renewed trust in associations and a heightened awareness of the value of research, not only in the scientific community, but among the general public as well," he said. 

Panelist Jan Reichelt, serial entrepreneur and investor in EdTech companies,  agreed that these times of change can actually be beneficial from an entrepreneurial perspective. One example is the renewed focus on the researcher as the key stakeholder, going against previous dynamics in which researchers are often subjugated within the publisher and institution relationship. With everything moving into a digital format, the researcher’s voice has been uncovered and underscored, strengthening relations within scholarly communications.

What can the scholarly communications industry learn from a more digital-forward approach?

While there are countless benefits to the digitization of scholarly communications, accessibility to content, such as abstracts and presentations, can pose challenges in the form of information overload, Dr. Thomas said. To support researchers, it is essential to organize content, improve search capabilities, and validate research, potentially via a peer review process. Each panelist noted the significance of separating “real information” from noise in a time where determining the reliability of science is essential.

However, the digital age also opens up new ways to access and disseminate information, including in the form of podcasts or webinars, increasing its impact by ensuring content reaches a broad, cross-sectional audience.


Where do conferences need to step up?

Hainsworth remarked that, although the digital age has reinforced the relevance of associations and the value of events, we still need to rethink the role of conferences and look for new ways to engage attendees. Building on this, Villanueva-Almanza said that although digital formats have made virtual conferences accessible for researchers and scientists across the globe, this will pose a challenge for future in-person and hybrid conferences when it comes to ensuring meetings are sustainable and inclusive - regardless if researchers are in the room or attending virtually. 

Dr. Ngumbi and Reichelt also echoed these concerns, stating that social bonds are very difficult if not impossible to replicate online, which can definitely pose a threat to the success of fully-digital gatherings.

What are the key takeaways for the future?

Still, each panellist remained hopeful about the broadened scope of possibilities unlocked through virtual conferences. Dr. Ngumbi noted that we “must all come together and strategically harmonize our goals as institution leaders, organizers, and researchers,” in order to continue to accelerate communication and scientific exchange in a digital age. Villenueva-Almanza agreed that remote gatherings make “it much easier to connect with people and imagine possible collaborations.” 

The filtering process of what we choose and choose not to participate in that has been ushered in through the digital age has added elements of authenticity and integrity that will keep everyone focused on their goals. “Things are going to be different,” Dr. Thomas claims, “but I think it’s going to be highly relevant.”

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